Category Archives: International travel

birthplaces

We’ve moved into “anytime now” mode.  I regard every kick, every cramp, every shift the baby undertakes with new fascination, and I nap as if I’m making a career out of it.  Ryan’s been reading bedtime stories to my belly, and the dog never strays more than a few feet from my side.  It’s a dear time, quiet and unhurried. Hard to believe one can be pregnant for forty weeks; harder still to believe its possible to feel this good at the finish line.

A few weeks ago,  our birth class instructor asked us to do birth art.   Despite our mutual enthusiasm for art, we felt a little odd about doing art about birth after a guided visualization sitting on the floor in a tiny room crowded with 14 other people.  I had trouble focusing on an “image of birth,” and midway through the instructor’s visualization,  I realized I’d spiralled off into a reverie about our trip to India last summer, and was contentedly imagining sunrise over the Ganges, and mornings drinking black tea in our little room in the Himalayan foothills.  When the birth class instructor told us to pick up our art supplies and render our images, I was thinking about mist and blue water, and green leaves and bamboo silhouettes in the fog.

“What are we supposed to be drawing?” Ryan whispered in my ear.  I grinned at him.  “Dunno, really. Our concepts of birth?”

I figured the soft colors floating around in my head were as good a thing to draw as any, so i peeled the wrapper off a blue pastel and swirled the entire length of the crayon in concentric circles. Realized that in thinking about water and mist in India, I’d begun to picture our birth tub in my head, and the place its going to be set up in our living room when I go into labor.  Realized that in thinking about greens, and plants in mist, I might also be thinking about the maple in full leaf right outside our livingroom window, and how I would perhaps be able to see it from the birth tub.  Started playing with the green pastels.

Looked over to see Ryan sketching out a square pool of water and a tree, and realized I knew exactly what he was drawing. Realized, somewhat startled, that we were in fact, drawing the same thing.  Sort of.

Birthplaces.

I was drawing my conception of a tranquil birth space, one situated in our cosy little house with a pool of water and windows looking into the trees.  Ryan was drawing a similarly tranquil birth space, also featuring a pool of water and plenty of trees,  one also rooted in memories of our travels in India last summer.  His was a place where a birth had already occurred : a sacred and well-marked spot outside of the tiny village of Lumbini, Nepal, where a woman named Maya Devi gave birth to a son she named Siddhartha, sometime around 500 BCE.  Siddhartha would become known as the historical Buddha, and thousands upon thousands of pilgrims would venture to the site of his birth in the centuries that followed.

ruins of ancient monastaries on the site of Siddhartha's birth

The site of the birth, partially excavated, is protected from the elements by a simple roof and unadorned walls, and a wooden boardwalk allows pilgrims to circambulate the site in meditation.  We visited Lumbini in the monsoon, and the air inside the birth-site smelled of damp and dust.  We stood at the site, staring up at a carving of the birth scene, installed on the site many years later by a Buddhist emperor paying tribute.  Maya Devi labored standing up, supporting herself from a tree branch, with her attendants close by.  In the carving of the birth scene, the infant is shown just before the mother, seated on a lotus blossom.     I stared up at the carving of the laboring woman, and noticed that so many pilgrims had touched their hands to the stone in reverence, her face had been worn off, as had the face of the infant Buddha.  They were a mother and her son, not royalty or spiritual leader incarnate.  The birth that happened here was, for all intents and purposes, as ordinary as it was sacred, a quality I felt certain the Buddha would underscore were he here to converse on the matter.

I wandered back outside to stand in front of the pool, built to commemorate the pond in the woods the mother had bathed in after giving birth.  The water was still, disturbed only by the occasional raindrop and the slow-moving ripples of turtles swimming beneath the surface.  A giant bodhi tree branched out over the pool, grown from a cutting of the tree in Bodh Gaya under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. A little girl and her father were tending the shrine under the tree, and offering incense to the pilgrims in exchange for donations.

We spent three days in Lumbini.  In the calm and quiet of that little village, and hours upon hours spent wandering the massive peace park dedicated to the Buddha’s birthplace, we had conversations about our visions and fears and hopes around becoming parents together.  We shared delicious food in a restaurant in which we were the only customers at nearly every meal.  We listened to the rain, and bought incense and umbrellas from the tiny shops on the street.  By the time we left, we had decided we were ready to bring a child into the world.

When I saw Ryan drawing the pool at Lumbini, our time there, and the significance of it, came flooding back to me in a wave.  The next day I had prints made of the tree and the pool, and I hung them around our house so we could be reminded of that tranquil place as we bring our son into the world.

Dove back into my India journals to re-experience the memories more vividly… excerpts below for anyone who wants a little vicarious time abroad.

Boarded a train in Varanasi to Gorakhpur, experiencing our first taste of “sleeper class.”  no AC here, and close quarters with other passengers after the busy stops.  We sit as still as we can, sweating and watching an exquisite sunset unroll across the countryside,  glowing on dozens of kids laughing and throwing their weight into makeshift swings hung from trees with bicycle tires tied together…

6 long hours later, we pull into Gorakhpur… get a room for the night, then hire a taxi to take us to the India-Nepal border in the morning.  Walk across the border in the rain, our first taste of monsoon.  its a dry year, we’ve been told… we experienced no rain up till now in the other places we have been.  It is creating great pressure across the countryside, as farmers cannot plant their rice until there is adequate water.

We get our visas in order and our passports stamped, and hire another taxi to take us the rest of the way to Lumbini, the village on the site where the historical Buddha, Siddhartha, was born.  The countryside is rich, verdant green, and the rain is pretty much constant.  Our taxi driver leans out the window every now and then to wipe the rain from the windshield with a rag, as the wipers are apparently not in working order.  Mango trees, more kids on makeshift swings, tiny brick abodes with bright laundry dripping in the rain and each home with a water buffalo tied in the yard eating from the center of an old tire.  Around 11 we arrive in Lumbini, a tiny village with only one main street, and a quiet one at that, more traffic from herds of goats and cows and water buffalo than anything with an engine.

take a tiny, dear room on a 3rd floor balcony, looking out over the rice paddies.  discover, as the hours pass, that monsoon has arrived in this part of southern Nepal in earnest.  it rains at all times of the day here, sometimes slow and steady, sometimes hard and fast… riotous birdsong all the time, and the power is out as often as it is on.  its cooler here than it was in India, which we’re grateful for, but the humidity is still very high.  If we get wet in the rain, our clothing does not dry, and we realize we’re going to have to buy umbrellas, as we’ve only got a few sets of clothes each.

In the late afternoon, we rent bicycles from our hostel and pedal down the short road and through the gates of the international peace park built around the site of Buddha’s birthplace.  Its late day and we simply want to get a feel for the place, so we pedal down the narrow dirt roads, through tall grasses and past still, quiet ponds and slow moving rivers.  There are beautiful monasteries from a dozen countries set back in the trees as we go, and giant white cranes flap slowly overhead every now and then, on the wing from the crane sanctuary at the south end of the park.  We are pedalling along a brick path lining a long pond when the monsoon begins again in earnest…

we take shelter for a while under a thatched hut and listen to the downpour, watch it soaking into the dirt road and running down the tall stalks of grass, tiny beads sliding along the fibers of the thatched roof, piling onto each other until their weight becomes too much and they carry themselves downward to splash up again from the puddles below…

calm suffuses this place, and we drink it in.  The park alone would be something indeed, but to know the story that is rooted here, the birthplace, literally, of a spiritual tradition dating back hundreds of years before the birth of Christ… a tradition rooted in contemplation, in this very landscape.  There is meaning in the damp air and the muddied earth that settles into your bones and asks for your heart to consider it.

Realizing the monsoon isn’t letting up, we venture out from under the roof into the torrent and climb onto our bikes… i pocket my glasses, useless in this sort of rain, and the landscape’s edges blur into softness, green on brick on greysky. we pedal through the mud and the puddles, laughing and grinning like fools… soaked through, and no reason to care, the rain is warm and we’ve got no where to be.

my kind of honeymoon, i holler to Ryan, wiping the sheets of water from my forehead and eyes

he grins back

we splash along the road near the entrance,

locals smile at us and shout namaste as we pass.

In the village, I try to bargain with a woman shopkeeper for a set of black umbrellas.  She doesn’t speak much english, and calls her husband out to help translate.  Since my negotiations appear to be failing, I decide to attempt the “walkaway,” and tell them I don’t think I should spend so much, and am going to ask my husband.  Her husband begins to laugh. “She never asks me what I think.  This is her business.”  I grin back, impressed by her chutzpah, and pay full price for the umbrellas.

That night, we take cool bucket showers in our tiled bathroom and then spend the evening reading on our beds before the open windows, watching the endless raindrops soaking into the rice paddies.

The next morning, we walk down muddy paths, rain thudding onto our umbrellas and cascading down around our feet.  White cranes flap overhead, wide-faced water buffalo feed in the tall grass.

As we attempt to visit monasteries, we are turned back by closed gates and flooded paths, but make our way anyway, by walking. Walking, walking.  Two thousand years of pilgrims here, prayers, contemplation in this place.  Even though I hesitate a bit to call myself a pilgrim, I begin to feel it in my body, my subconscious.  Mind softens, quiets.  Feet sting, where blisters are opening under wet sandal straps.  We keep walking.  The rain keeps falling.  Cranes flap overhead.  At the monasteries, we shed our shoes and walk barefoot over smooth marble and stone paths, made slick by sheets of flowing rainwater.  It feels divine on aching feet.  Monks sitting under monastery eves laugh and watch the monsoon.  Others chant softly in the temples.  We find our own sanctuary from the rain, and unwrap the newspaper from a pile of samosas I’d bought earlier from a street vendor, lost in the sound of the unceasing rain.

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Filed under art, fathoming, International travel, love, marriage, memory, Peace, Pregnancy

trying to fathom.

“Maybe everyone felt this way at some point, when one realized there was a depth to one’s life and emotions beyond one’s own significance.”

-Kiran Desai, the Inheritance of Loss

A week ago, I was lying in bed next to Ryan in a tin-roofed cottage in an orchid nursery on a steep hillside in Kalimpong, India, scribbling in my journal, thinking forward to our return to the states.  I began a sentence:

“I am trying to fathom”

and a power failure swallowed us in darkness.  They’re part of ordinary life in India—usually happening several times a day and frequently lasting hours.  I crawled off the bed and bumped around in the dark looking for the matches, which stubbornly refused to light when I struck them, as the dampness of August monsoon in the Himalayan foothills had softened their matchheads. 

Digression: the dictionary of English etymology defines “fathom” as the length made by the outstretched arms, 6 feet. It is a verb for measuring depth, getting to the bottom of. In the world of sailing ships, a fathom is the same measurement, and in the days before electronic nautical instruments, a rope was stretched along one’s arms, and knotted at intervals matching the human reach. Once this rope was lowered into a water of unknown depth, the number of submerged knots would give an indicator of how far down the bottom lay. Fathoming. The word has always reminded me of Melville’s sailors, staring fearfully into the dark of the ocean. I learned in college that Moby Dick was a metaphor as much as it was a whale, and so I suppose it follows that in testing the depths of that deep water, sailors were searching for meaning as much as literal ground. In the act of fathoming, we make ourselves vulnerable. When we stand with arms outstretched, reaching our fingertips as far out as they will go, we expose our vital organs to the dangers of the world. And it is in this way, and this way only, that we are able to gain some idea of what it is that lies at hand.

After I’d struck a half-dozen Indian matches, one sputtered into flame, and I lit the 4 candles we’d been burning across India.

I crawled back into bed in the candlelight, and we lay without speaking.  The forest was suddenly audible in the absence of the oscillating hum of the electric fan; now we heard the low buzz of thousands of crickets rubbing their legs together, the brushing of insects against the leaves and the echoing telegraph of the village dogs, passing messages in the streets.  Ryan returned to his book, and I picked up my journal again.  “It seems to me,” I wrote, “in the darkened silence, that we’re made aware of where we really are, this place it is we inhabit.  Suddenly it feels like we’re surrounded by jungle-forest, even though we’re only dwelling in its edges.  After all, it is vast enough, this thick green of the foothills of the Himalaya, that even roads and villages are little more than an interruption, and a small one at that, as all of this “civilization” could be washed into the river by the forest in the mudslides of a good monsoon.  Listening, it seems the forest breathes between the paced exhalations of cricketsong, and having just read about the tigers of the Sunderbans [the mangrove-forested islands in the mouth of the Ganges River], I feel respectful and small in the dark.”

The lights and the fan clicked back on after only a short while, and I returned to the unfinished thought I’d begun before the power outage.

I am trying to fathom

Like many sentences in my journals, this one had been abandoned half-finished, interrupted by a distraction. I stared at it for a moment, bemused that it might actually constitute a complete sentence. Subject, me. Verb, fathom. I had left myself standing there on the page, arms outstretched, reaching into the darkness. It was, technically, complete, I supposed. But what had I been reaching for?

I am trying to fathom what I’ll say to my dear ones next week, when they ask

so how was your trip

which moments will I select for recapitulation?  which observations will surface in my jetlagged disorientation?   I realize I am trying to fathom what This All Means.  These 32 days in India, living out of a backpack.

One the one hand, These 32 Days in India Living Out of A Backpack were nothing more than a collection of moments.   They can be reduced to a list, of places, and journeys between places: cities, airports, trainstations, rowboats, hostels, lodges, rivers, mountains, monasteries and restaurants, faces, pots of tea, meals and evenings and books and rickshaws and tickets and rupees and bad maps and alleys and signs in Sanskrit.

I could recount all those details, and it would be an exercise akin to measuring the depth of the ocean by making note of the quantity of seaweed floating on its surface, or the size of the waves.

The real measure of the experience has nothing—and everything—to do with the details. There is no fathom-rope deep enough to get to the bottom of 32 Days in India Living Out of A Backpack. It is an ocean of murky emotional-intellectual-spiritual experience (which is also made of observable things, like waves and seaweed). Walkabout— wandering the world just for the sake of seeing what it has to show you— is an act that is, by its very undertaking, a fundamental unmooring from the Acccustomed, the Habitual, the Known, the Routine, the Familiar.  Like a sailor setting out under the wind, you realize you are not entirely in control of where you end up. Like a sailor, you bring what you think you’ll need, the tools and clothes and bits of knowledge you think may best serve you. India, like the ocean, can change on you in a moment. Suddenly you’re in over your head, bobbing up and down and rubbing the sting out of your eyes, as wave after wave of new smells, tastes, sounds, and visions splash into you.  You are washed over by culture, history, and curious, probing stares. You are confounded by new and ancient ways of doing things.  And as the hours pass and you remember you never did have any control over all of this, you start to relax, and recognize the universal currents flowing around you, human suffering, joy, art, commerce.  You start to take stock of all you have carried with you from home: preconceptions, useless luggage (why this pair of pants? why that assumption?). You feel deep gratitude for the things that prove useful: patience, that orange pashmina scarf from Emma, this nail clippers you got past airport security, that gluestick, open eyes, open heart…

You begin to realize things about yourself, attitudes and prejudices and capacities, revealed over the passing days, things you never really understood before.  The country, the people, offer you a mirror in which to see yourself; your mannerisms, your skin color, your clothing, your privilege, your guilt, your joys, and the wellspring of patience that is infinitely deeper each time you dip into it.  It is the kind of mirror most Americans conspire to keep covered, because the reflection is not always flattering to our ego.  Yes, I see in the mirror of India, I am capable of racist thoughts.  Yes, I am capable of walking past a starving child, reduced to bones and skin and eyes, sitting next to his unconscious mother on a traffic island surrounded by a chaos of cars and rickshaws and buses belching diesel fumes, walking past and doing nothing.

There’s plenty of beauty too, too much to take in, enough to bathe in the memories of it well into my old age.  But I think the discomfort, the awkwardness, the truly unnerving took more fathoming, had more to teach me about myself.

Now I am home again, in the states, and my jeans and my music and my shower and my kitchen table and my house feel like a foreign country for the first few hours.  I am trying, again, to fathom

what I’ve brought home.  What it means to be here, to be of here, in my sweet kitchen, my backyard garden, the land of milk and honey, Michael Jackson and roads with lanes.

trying to fathom.

prayer wheels in Lumbini, Nepal

[wrote this listening to: \”First Breath After Coma,\” Explosions in the Sky

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Filed under fathoming, Garden, India, International travel

Got Married, Went to India

more on the getting married part later.

it was pretty great.

now… all that is in my mind, in my ears, lungs, and on my skin,

is India.

Ryan and I are blogging and posting pictures on our “Walkabouts” blog… http://www.sarahandrion.wordpress.com

I will throw up words on this blog as well (pictures later, most likely). the keyboards tend towards decrepit, the power comes and goes, and the connections are slow, so the same words may appear in emails and on both blogs every now and then.

we’ve been in Varanasi, India for 2 days now,
ancient, ancient city on the banks of the Sacred Ganges river
no words to describe it but i’ll try anyway
took a 13 or 15? hour train ride from New Dehli, splurged for 2AC, (second class air conditioned… thank gawd).  two berths, one up, one down, tiny reading lights and a window to watch the country pass by… crumbling concrete city at first, ancient buildings with new construction rising from decay thats simply been pushed aside, cell phones and horsedrawn carts and lower caste people sweeping the streets all the time, staving off the constantly accumulating drifts of garbage and shit…
the smells of curry, spices, incense dominate,
sometimes they comingle with the smell of excrement, sometimes all you smell is shit… but soon the incense and food smells return
people everywhere, sleeping on the sidewalks and medians
city giving way to rice paddies and open fields
humid grey skies and tiny compounds of red brick with wash drying and a water buffalo tethered in front of each door
brightly colored saris here and there across the landscape, women working in the fields, chai wallas walking thru the train hollering CHAI, CHAI,
revolving passengers sharing our cabin,
sleep, then watch out the window, then read, then sleep again
finally, Varanasi,
ancient, crumbling palaces crowding the shore of the river
(some now homes to the poor, some still the property of the rich, monkeys walking the rooflines and lizards sunning themselves on the walls)
giant stone steps leading right into the water, called ghats,
each neighborhood has its own ghat
where women and men wash brightly colored clothing and bathe next to sacred cows wading
(yes, there really are sweet faced sacred cows EVERYWHERE, even in the midst of the terrifying, exhilarating traffic jams we’ve richocheted thru on bicycle and autorickshaws)
next to children swimming and doing cannonballs into the river next to sewage draining next to old men praying and young men making offerings of japuti (bread) to the river next to bodies burning (24 7, at specified “burning ghats”). ceremonies are held on the ghats every night to honor the river, tiny candles in leaf boats set sail on the fetid, sacred water that will cleanse you of all your sins.
we took early morning and evening boat rides up and down the river yesterday, saw all of this magic from the perspective of the water
at twilight, there were kites along the entire cityline, flown in the giant, quiet, beautiful sky, lifted higher by the gusts of heat from the crematoriums and burning ghats
we eat well, get lost, get found, brush off scam artists and count out rupees for rickshaw drivers and those persistent children who persuade us to buy their postcards or leaf-boats filled with flowers and tiny handmade candles
in love with, in awe of, inspired and overwhelmed and entranced by india.
tiny alleys filled with people, cows, motorbikes, set into the walls of the alleys, which are really yesterday’s roads, are tiny rooms and halls in which people are living, selling silks and japuti and chai made in worn out pots over tiny fires of dried dung or propane, music and government propaganda pumping from street speakers, soldiers lounging on benches with rifles and no particular appearence of lawfulness, children in school uniforms being ferried to class in bicycle rickshaw schoolbuses and clinging to their parents on flying motorbikes, goats EVERYWHERE, and you all know how i love that.
it is hotter than hell, and humid as all get out
we are grateful for every moment, and we splurge for AC when we can. the power cuts out every few hours, we miss the dog and i see her resemblance in half the animals we meet (cows, goats, lizards…)
we think of you all, the people we love,
everywhere we go
we wish we could share these moments with you in all the vividness they ocur for us

Namaste

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Filed under India, International travel